Sport on TV: When England ruled the world at smoking and big puddings

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The Independent Online

Cricket must have seemed like an odd pastime to inhabitants of the far-flung corners of the Empire – as it still does to the rest of the world – but it wasn't long before they took to it and then started thrashing us at it with gusto. So perhaps Alex Horne has the right idea in The Games That Time Forgot (BBC4, Monday): move the goalposts and rule the world again. In his examination of neglected British sports, he tries cricket on horseback. Jonathan Trott might even get up to a canter, and surely the England tail would swish more effectively.

Horne came across the idea in an obscure paragraph in the 'Kentish Gazette' of 1794, as you do, and manages to stage quite an interesting match which is only marred when one of the horses wanders off and craps in the outfield. Still, nothing that a village cricketer might not do after a curry.

There are some other treats here, mainly taken from 18th-century country fairs, such as "hot hasty pudding eating" and smoking contests which, with laudable even-handedness, come in opposing formats: smoking a pipe as quickly as possible, and as slowly as possible. But these are not very healthy activities, and neither – in the moral sense – is "jingling", where a man with bells on his coat is chased around by girls wearing blindfolds.

In order to qualify as a sport today, however – that is, to be sanctioned by Sport England – an activity must involve a decent amount of enthusiasts. So why did it take them until 2008 to endorse stoolball? (Darts and bicycle polo were already there.) This women's sport which, as Horne points out, is widely played in the South-east, was first recorded in 1450. Milkmaids waiting for the cows would take up their stools and use them to hit turnips. It is regarded as one of the precursors of cricket.

It's a shame because, who knows, such a quintessentially English pastime – and a showcase for women's sport – might have featured as an exhibition sport at London 2012. Perhaps Sport England were caught between two stools; not the ones lying in the outfield just wide of mid-wicket, but between mass participation and a sport's ability to fund itself so that it is not reliant on the finances of the umbrella body.

* One can only hope that base jumping is not recognised as a sport any time soon. The Men Who Jump Off Buildings (Channel 4, Wednesday) showcased two practitioners (it does exactly what it says on the tin hat): Dan Witchalls is the foolhardy bully and Ian Richardson his impressionable sidekick, like a pair of kids breaking into a falling-down house. They ask Witchalls if he has thought about having children; he says he supposes he has. They ask his nice Danish girlfriend if she would have a child with him and she just says no. At least Witchalls won't be able to bully her offspring into springing off.

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